The Washington State wine industry continues to grow while funds supporting viticulture and enology research dwindle, creating a widening research gap.
In recent years, about $350,000 to $450,000 has been spent annually on viticulture and enology research in Washington State. Research is funded through the state wine sales tax (of which 1/4 cent per liter—equivalent to just under 1 cent per gallon—goes to Washington State University for wine and grape research) and from a legislative mandate or line item in WSU’s budget. The line item amount, originally $525,000 per biennium, has eroded through the years, along with WSU’s overall budget, and is now down to less than $230,000 annually.
The two pots of money for viticulture and enology research—wine tax and WSU—are relatively stable, but they are not being increased, said Ralph Cavalieri, director of WSU’s Agriculture Research Center. However, there is a possibility that more grape industry research funds may be found in new state money going to WSU’s Agriculture Research Center for "emerging research issues." The new program will provide seed money and operating funds for research to help WSU be competitive and attract faculty attention to emerging issues.
In the big picture, the Agriculture Research Center spends about $60 million annually on agriculture research, according to Cavalieri. Of the $60 million, $23.8 million is appropriated from the state, with the remainder coming from federal and nonfederal grants, federal formula funds, and other sources. About one-seventh of the $60 million comes from agriculture.
One of the primary criticisms from industry is that WSU doesn’t provide operating money for research. "That’s probably true," he conceded.
WSU covers the researcher’s salary, but doesn’t provide for research technicians, research assistants, and equipment, Cavalieri explained. "We’re spread very thinly already. Operating money is always tight."
He is frustrated with the state’s lack of commitment to agricultural research. "We are at about half the level of many of our peers in other states who have more faculty and state funding dedicated to agricultural research."
Grandview grape grower Dick Boushey echoed the sentiment of many in Washington’s wine industry: Although the state has the highest overall wine tax in the country, only a small percentage—¼-cent-per liter—is allocated for grape research. The $200,000 generated annually from the wine tax is about all that the state –contributes to grape research besides the amount in WSU’s budget that came from other WSU programs, he added.
There are always more research requests than money to fund them, noted Boushey, co-chair of the Wine Advisory Committee, the group that oversees grape and wine research. In 2007, requests for research proposals totaled $741,000, but the Wine Advisory Committee only had funds to support projects totaling $424,000.
Dr. Wade Wolfe, a long-time member of the committee, said that one of the biggest concerns is that there are potential research projects that are not being funded because of a lack of dollars. "There are projects that we’re not looking at. And, we’re not taking full advantage of the researchers that we have here."
New money has been pledged for research from the Washington Wine Commission, to be generated from last year’s increase in industry assessments.
The Wine Commission will appropriate 5 percent of the increased assessments to research and education, which amounts to about $100,000. But while industry members are thankful for the new money, most agree that it’s not enough to close the gap.
"I think the extra $100,000 will go a long ways," Boushey said. "We still won’t be able to do long-term, comprehensive projects, but we will be able to attack issues like pests, diseases, and winery fermentation issues."
A Washington wine industry task force is developing a strategic plan for research, including research priorities and funding required to support the proposed research program. The full report, to be released later this year, will estimate a timeline and dollar amount required to –support the research priorities. Once a dollar amount is projected, the industry can chart its plan of action.
"Regardless of how supportive the state legislature is, the funds still have to come from somewhere," said Wolfe, who participated in the task force discussions. "We currently have the wine tax and self-assessed research money from the Wine Commission. Discussions are being held within industry regarding how to better fund research. Should we be looking at collecting more from industry?"
Wolfe noted that Oregon collects $25 per ton of grapes to support its research and promotion.
Some are also discussing increasing the level of taxes on wine sales to boost research funding. States like Ohio, Missouri, and Iowa, with much smaller wine industries, collect significantly higher amounts for research from their wine taxes—five and six cents per gallon, and five percent, respectively.
But a move to increase wine taxes in Washington is problematic, Wolfe said, especially if the increased funding requires a public vote. "We’ll probably look at less challenging ways to increase funding," he said.
Moreover, he stressed that the state’s two biggest wine producers must support any method chosen to increase research funding.
Mattawa vineyardist Tedd Wildman said the industry has been lucky in that it’s had a supportive legislative branch and cooperative university and team of researchers. –Wildman is a director of the Washington Wine Commission and a member of the Wine Advisory Committee. "We’ve been able to make do with scarce research dollars. The industry has been complacent, riding on WSU’s coattails rather than being proactive. But we are soon approaching serious shortfalls for research."
One option to increase research funding would be to go to the legislature with a research initiative, he said.
One of Wildman’s long-term goals has been to increase industry funding of research. He strongly believes that some kind of "earmarked, industry assessment" should be collected to fund research. He also has a hope that "in the fullness of time, the Wine Commission would either embrace their legislative-mandated research responsibility or delegate it" to another organization.
While he heartily praised the promotion work of the Wine Commission, he is critical of their history in the area of research. Up until now, the Wine Commission has not used industry assessments to fund research, even though the state code establishing the –commission includes research and education in its mandate.